Author: William Waqavakatoga, University of Adelaide

Newly elected Fijian Prime Minister Sitiveni Rabuka pulled off a remarkable diplomatic feat during his 20 January 2023 state visit to Kiribati, where he set out to convince the government of Kiribati to rejoin the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF).

A boat floats in the lagoon near Bikeman islet, Kiribati, 25 May, 2013 (Photo: Reuters/David Gray).

A boat floats in the lagoon near Bikeman islet, Kiribati, 25 May, 2013 (Photo: Reuters/David Gray).

Rabuka is no stranger to creating uncertainty for the PIF. In May 1987, the then lieutenant colonel overthrew the democratically elected Fijian government in a coup d’etat. This presented the Forum with another significant political crisis — earlier in 1980, Papua New Guinea had sent troops to newly-independent Vanuatu during the Santo Rebellion.

The ‘Pacific Way’, with its goal of ‘fostering trust and understanding within and outside the region’, is a priority for the new Fijian government. In Rabuka’s inaugural Fiji address, he stated that his ‘first priority’ as chair of the PIF was to ‘engage in the diplomacy required’.

This ‘diplomacy required’ led to Rabuka’s first overseas visit to Kiribati 22 days later. The outcome of the visit was confirmation by Kiribati President Taneti Maamau that his government intended to return to the PIF.

The ‘Pacific Way’ is an empty idea if it is not backed by purposeful meaning and action. Rabuka used three threads to express the spirit of the ‘Pacific Way’ to convince Kiribati to rejoin the PIF.

The first was the use of religion. In Fiji, cultural practice has evolved to incorporate Christianity to the point that cultural practice and religion mutually reinforce each other. Rabuka understands that Christianity is equally significant in Kiribati as the country’s predominant religion. His speeches were layered with biblical citations, situating his appeal from a position of Christian humility, remorse and accountability. Acknowledging that Fiji should have done more to prevent Kiribati from leaving the PIF, Rabuka’s appeal helped to convey a genuine desire for reconciliation.

Second, Rabuka used his own personal background to establish trust, respect, understanding and sincerity in his call for Kiribati to return to the PIF while reassuring their grievances would be addressed.

Rabuka is primarily known in the region for his role in the coups of 1987 and as Commonwealth Secretariat Special Envoy during the civil unrest in Solomon Islands. At 74 years old and having been re-elected as Prime Minister after a lapse of more than two decades, Rabuka is considered part of the older generation of Pacific leaders. As an older generation leader seeking forgiveness, Rabuka was able to convey the sincerity of his efforts towards reconciliation.

Rabuka also emphasised his familiarity with the Banaban community in Fiji, descendants of those displaced from the island of Banaba in Kiribati, who had sent their sons to the Queen Victoria School where Rabuka was educated.

Third, Rabuka used Fijian customary practice to reaffirm kinship and remind Kiribati of its close connections with Fiji. In Tarawa, the Fijian delegation were accorded a traditional welcome ceremony. Rabuka reciprocated this welcome by using the traditional Fijian protocol of sevusevu and boka. The sevusevu is an act of acknowledgment of the traditional landowners and seeks permission to be allowed onto the land with their blessings.

The boka was conducted by presenting a tabua (whale tooth) to the Kiribati President. The use of the tabua is highly prized and sacred in Fijian culture, as mana (power) resides within.

As the boka is technically reserved for kinsfolk, some Fijian observers questioned the grounds on which this was carried out. But Rabuka is able to claim kinship ties to Kiribati through the Banaban people. Rabuka is from Cakaudrove province, where the Banaban people live permanently on Rabi Island after having been displaced from Banaba by phosphate mining. There, they have been absorbed and naturalised through the blessing of the vanua and are also Fijian citizens. The Speaker of the Fiji Parliament, Ratu Naiqama Lalabalavu, is the paramount chief of Cakaudrove and holds the Banaban people under his protection.

Rabuka’s successful diplomatic approach originated from an understanding that his own background could be used as a conduit to express the sentiments of the Fijian state by appealing to Christian values and using meaningful traditional practices.

While the outcome has been celebrated by PIF members, President Maamau could have respectfully declined Rabuka’s approach. The spirit of the ‘Pacific Way’ means that no offense would be taken — instead, it would have been understood as a sign that more effort would be required to repair the broken relationship. Maamau acknowledged Rabuka’s diplomacy as representative of the ‘Pacific Way of acceptance, reconciliation, peace and unity.’

William Waqavakatoga is a PhD Candidate in Politics and International Relations at the University of Adelaide. He is a former teaching assistant at the University of the South Pacific in Fiji.